Jean Burch Falls
Jean Burch Falls, who co-founded ACT Theater and was instrumental in saving Seattle's Pike Place Market, died at the age of 94 in her home on Queen Anne Hill on March 29, 2020. She had recently taken a couple of falls, followed by a stroke.
Born Jean Morron Burch in New York City, she fell in love with the theater at an early age. She attended the Brearley School, where she acted in school plays, and went on to study drama, over her parents' objections, at Bryn Mawr College and later at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. Her parents, Lowell and Catherine Burch, considered the theater an improper milieu for their daughter, and when she was offered the inge;nue role in a Broadway show starring Tallulah Bankhead, her father got the offer rescinded. But the setback didn't deter her long. After a first marriage that left her with two sons, she directed and acted in summer stock even as she started pre-med studies at the University of Vermont. When she met and married Greg Falls, director of UVM's Drama Department, the die was cast. Mr. Falls soon founded the Champlain Shakespeare Festival, which gave Mrs. Falls the opportunity to play roles like Rosalind in As You Like It and Gertrude in Hamlet.
In 1961 the family, which now included two daughters, moved to Seattle, where Mr. Falls took the helm of the Drama Department at the University of Washington. Seattle was a city about to blossom, on the brink of a World's Fair. 1963 saw the first winter season of classic fare at the Seattle Repertory Theater. The Falls wanted to make contemporary theater available in the summer months, and though they were told that in warm weather Seattleites were interested only in the three B's (beaches, barbeques, and boats), they opened ACT Theater in 1965. This was in the Redding Building, on First West and Roy, which Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mt. Everest and a founder of REI, had used as his staging area. Thanks to the hard work of the Falls and the board they assembled, the summer theater thrived. Thirty years later the historic Eagles Auditorium in downtown Seattle was refurbished to provide ACT with four performances spaces. In ACT's early days Mrs. Falls, using her stage name of Jean Burch, played many roles, including leads in Edward Albee's Tiny Alice and A Delicate Balance, Sister Woman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Eleanor of Aquitaine in Lion in Winter. She maintained an office in the Globe Building in Pioneer Square, which became her creative space as her interest shifted from acting to writing lyrics, often in collaboration with composer Rob Duisberg. Among her shows were Seattle Ecletic (a musical revue), Winter Weeds (a short opera), Sex over Easy, The Dulcimer Boy, and Heidi, performed variously at Empty Space, ACT, Seattle Civic Light Opera, and the Issaquah Village Theater. But Mrs. Falls did take a final turn on the boards in 1999, playing Dr. Ashford in Margaret Edson's Wit at the Seattle Rep, a production that subsequently went on tour to Houston, Tuscon, and Phoenix.
Though theater was Mrs. Falls' first passion, she was a woman of many parts. In her younger days she was an avid rider, and at eighteen she got her airplane pilot's license in hopes of joining the WASPs (Women's Auxiliary Service Patrol), though World War II ended before she was old enough to serve. Her love of horses later led her to go in on a young thoroughbred at a horse auction. The horse, named Savanna Blue Jeans, was Filly of the Year in Washington State for two years running in the 70's. Savanna and her progeny won many stakes races at Longacres Racetrack. But far more than horses Mrs. Falls had come to love her adopted city. When a consortium of developers threatened to raze the Pike Place Market to build residential towers in the late 1960's, she joined a dedicated group to Save the Market. Following a hard fought election, she served on the first Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority. In the early 1980's she played a key role in establishing the Pike Place Market Foundation, which supports, among other things, Senior Housing at the Market and the Childcare Center. She and her longtime friend Mary Fleming raised the initial monies for the Childcare Center's unique playground. From 1975-1981 she was on the Seattle Center Advisory Commission, serving as chairman for several years, and she fought hard for the Seattle Center Bond Issue that provided funds for the Bagley Wright/Seattle Repertory Theater building. In the 1970's Mrs. Falls was also on an advisory panel, along with Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince, for the National Endowment for the Arts. She was the founding board member for the Empty Space Theater. She served on the Allied Arts board in the 70's, the Seattle's Town Hall board in the 90's, and made her home available for countless fundraisers-like the gigantic PONCHO croquet tournaments on great lawn to support the Arts. Till the end of 2019 she never stopped championing ACT, reading scripts, participating on committees, attending opening nights, galas, and special events, and was always available to the Managing Director and Artistic Director for consultation and advice. She is survived by her four children, John Seidler (Teri), Tor Seidler (Joe Li), Zan Collier (Stephan), and Jeannie Falls, as well as by five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Published in The Seattle Times on Apr. 5, 2020.